Dr. Danielle Verna joined the Council’s staff in April, filling the position of Environmental Monitoring Project Manager.
The position was previously held by Austin Love, who had been simultaneously managing this area of Council work and Terminal Operations for the last year and a half.
Verna brings important skills and knowledge to the Council. For her doctoral thesis, she studied how maritime trade, including oil transport, can affect the timing and location of invasive species delivery from the ballast water of tankers and bulk carriers, as well as the regulations and current events that impact trade patterns and shipping practices.
She is passionate about applying science to real world management and policy needs.
Her credentials include a Ph.D. in Environmental Science from Portland State University, a M.S. from Alaska Pacific University, and a B.S. from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Verna completed several research reports for the Council as part of her studies:
The third annual Prince William Sound Natural History Symposium, held on May 24, 2021, featured 20 speakers and over 260 participants. The Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation hosts this annual event. The foundation is a small volunteer-led nonprofit dedicated to keeping Prince William Sound healthy, clean, and wild, for all to enjoy. The Council helped sponsor the event and assisted the planning effort.
Speakers represented tribes, land management agencies, nonprofits, and scientists working in Prince William Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska. Representatives from Chugach Regional Resources Commission started the day with a Land Acknowledgment and the Mayor of Whittier, Dave Dickason, welcomed attendees. Topics ranged from wildlife to glaciers to history. Council volunteer Dave Goldstein presented on weather in Prince William Sound. I provided an introduction to how oil spill response is managed in our region.
The symposium was first conceived in 2019 as a pre-season training for guides and interpreters based out of Whittier. Nobody expected the event, which was held at the Whittier Public Safety Building, to be standing-room-only with over a hundred attendees.
Then, in early 2020, the organizers faced a challenge: cancel, or go virtual? I had already attended a few virtual conferences thrown together hastily in March 2020, so I knew it could be done. I was able to support the transition to an online symposium, preparing speakers and hosts to pull off this “new” thing: a live, public videoconference event. Over 260 people registered that year. It was a success! The virtual platform allowed participation from the entire Prince William Sound region, as well as statewide and beyond. Registration in 2021 matched numbers from 2020.
The future of the symposium is unclear. Presenters, participants, and organizers have all said they want to see it continue. After three years of volunteer efforts, the foundation is seeking financial support to hire a symposium coordinator. As pandemic restrictions lift, many would like to see the event return to Whittier. The possibility of a hybrid event (in person and online) seems to serve both the needs of local guides and interpreters – the original audience – and the broader interest that has developed over two years of online distribution. A dedicated coordinator would be critical to a successful hybrid event, which requires advanced audio-visual technology and greater staff support. The foundation hosts other events, including extensive volunteer efforts, throughout the year.
Spring brings many things to Prince William Sound – salmon, humpback whales and orcas, and the Alyeska Prince William Sound Traveling Health Fair! The 2020 health fair was canceled just weeks before departure due to the worsening pandemic. Like many things this year, COVID-19 required some creative retooling to carry out the 2021 event, which was held virtually the week of May 17.
Beginning in January, Alyeska personnel, local health and wellness providers, and Chenega and Tatitlek teachers and community members worked to develop classroom sessions to support specific targets set by the Chugach School District. Key areas of focus included nutrition, body awareness and first aid, and substance abuse prevention.
“The providers are always willing to adapt, create, and offer topics that we’ve asked for and deliver it all with such meaningful presentation,” said Tatitlek teacher Nichole Palmer. “They were innovative and came up with a way to deliver the traveling health fair, without traveling! I believe our students were able to get knowledgeable information that will help them progress in their levels.”
Classroom sessions were held over Zoom and materials that complimented the virtual lessons were distributed to the schools beforehand, along with other goodies for the students.
Among a strong slate of classes, there were some highlights. Students learned some healthy, easy, and delicious dip recipes made from pantry staples and what nutrition labels can tell them about what they’re eating. A yoga teacher led elementary students in movement class based on the life cycle of salmon. The week capped off with a panel put on by Alyeska’s Alaska Native program for Tatitlek and Chenega high schoolers. Employees from across Alaska talked about their journeys to the TAPS workforce, notable mentors, helpful tips, and the importance of hard work and resilience.
“We were disappointed that we couldn’t hold the event in person this year but keeping community members and providers safe and healthy was at the forefront of our minds,” said Kate Dugan, Valdez Communications Manager. “I’m so grateful for the volunteers who brought flexibility and imagination to the table and made the event successful. We’re all looking forward to an in-person Prince William Sound Traveling Health Fair soon!”
Since 2016, there has been an increase in foreign flagged tankers loading Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, or VMT. While foreign flagged ships are crewed by licensed and professional mariners, these vessels may introduce increased risk of an accident or oil spill due to the lack of familiarity with the unique environmental conditions or prevention and response systems in our region.
A lack of familiarity with the operating environment appears to have been the cause of an incident in the Gulf of Alaska on April 14 with the foreign flagged tanker, Stena Suede. This unladen vessel arrived ahead of its estimated time to load oil at the VMT, with other tankers scheduled ahead of it.
Instead of the customary response in this situation – picking up a marine pilot at the Bligh Reef station and proceeding to the only designated safe anchorage for large vessels in our region at Knowles Head – the Stena Suede decided to hold off in the Gulf of Alaska. When the winds started to pick up, the crew dropped anchor about 20 miles outside of Hinchinbrook Entrance. Subsequently, they were unable to pull up the anchor due to damaged equipment and the vessel proceeded to drag anchor for more than 24 hours, losing some mooring equipment as well. Once the crew made repairs, they proceeded to the VMT, loaded oil, and left without any further issues.
Foreign flagged tankers, such as the Stena Suede, are vetted prior to taking on oil at the VMT and provided with a number of documents in advance of sailing, including contingency plans, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic system manual, the vessel escort and response plan, and more – over 800 pages in total. While these important documents describe the operating environment and regulatory requirements, it is unrealistic to expect crew members to digest this large amount of material, discern the most relevant pieces, and retain all of the essential safety measures. Additionally, there is commonly understood local knowledge that is not necessarily written down in these plans or perhaps not in a way that highlights their importance.
Licensed marine pilots, such as those stationed at Bligh Reef, are highly trained experts in ship navigation and possess extensive knowledge of the local waterways, including environmental conditions specific to that area. Federal law requires a marine pilot be on board vessels, such as crude oil tankers, when entering bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the U.S. For the ports and waterways of southwest Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, or SWAPA, provides these services. Their role is to guide ships safely through confined waters, working to ensure the protection of shipping and the marine environment, as well as life and property.
Anchoring outside of ports is common practice around the world. The Stena Suede was in compliance with all applicable regulations as it was outside of state and federal jurisdiction with no requirement for a local marine pilot to be on board at that time. Inadequate communication between the ship and those familiar with the region may have prevented the crew from being warned against setting anchor in the Gulf.
It is the opinion of many marine operators in our region that there is no safe anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska. A letter dated April 22, 2021, from SWAPA to the U.S. Coast Guard pointed out that it is inadvisable to anchor in open waters in the Gulf given the unpredictable environmental conditions which may be encountered at any time of year.
The Stena Suede incident fortunately did not result in an accident or oil spill, but it put a spotlight on a potential weak link in the robust safety systems of our region. SWAPA has clarified their guidance for anchoring large seagoing vessels and plans to recommend updates to NOAA’s Alaska Coast Pilot. Industry representatives have also said they are looking at ways to improve the process of conveying important regional safety information to foreign flagged vessels. PWSRCAC plans to monitor these developments and provide input. We must all remain vigilant and be willing to use lessons learned to continuously improve our regional safety systems designed to prevent oil spills.